Is there any hope for implementing qualified majority voting in EU sanctions decisions?

As the topic of replacing the unanimity requirement in the Council, notably in Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), with qualified majority voting has once again resurfaced, we spoke to EU expert Leonard Schuette about who benefits from unanimity, whether such a policy can be changed, and what people often misunderstand about the issue.
Inside the European Council. Photo: Alamy

By Inbar Preiss

Inbar Preiss is a reporter at the Parliament Magazine

14 Jun 2022

The European Commission proposed the sixth package of sanctions against Russia on 4 May, including banning Russian oil by the end of the year. Yet Hungary held up the deal for 26 days, and the EU was only able to adopt the sanctions package after caving to Budapest’s demands and granting the country (and two others) an exemption from the oil embargo. 

Sanctions are a key instrument of the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), one of the policy fields that requires the unified agreement of all 27 EU Member States in the European Council.

The unanimity requirement in the Council has impeded EU foreign policy actions in the past; Cyprus single-handedly blocked EU sanctions against Belarus in 2020, while Italy prevented a joint statement on Venezuela’s crisis in 2019.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has previously called for a switch to qualified majority voting (QMV) in such areas as sanctions and human rights, to facilitate faster and more effective decision-making. 

The issue resurfaced in May at the Conference on the Future of Europe, a citizen-led series of debates and discussions, which recommended abolishing unanimity in favour of QMV in almost all instances, giving hope to some policymakers.

In response to the renewed interest in changing the unanimity requirement in the Council, especially as it pertains to CFSP decisions, we spoke to EU expert Leonard Schuette, a visiting researcher at Oxford University and PhD candidate at Maastricht University, who wrote on the topic of making EU foreign policy decisions by QMV in a 2019 policy brief for the Centre for European Reform. 

Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) has always been considered one of the most sensitive policy fields. So, CFSP [has] always been subject to unanimity requirements

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Inbar Preiss: How did the unanimity requirement for CFSP decisions start?

Leonard Schuette: Unanimity was the default, because initially the European community was small. There were just six [Member States]. But I think more than 90 per cent of EU legislation nowadays is decided by majority voting or qualitative majority voting. 

The logic, which also holds for questions of taxation and enlargement, is that CFSP has always been considered one of the most sensitive policy fields. So, CFSP never changed, it’s always been subject to unanimity requirements. 

IP: Who benefits from unanimity in the Council?

LS: It always benefits those who are outside of the consensus. Now, with the current example of the oil embargo on Russia, it is obviously Hungary that benefits from unanimity, because it wields veto over the EU’s sanctions decision. 

But in general, smaller countries profit more from unanimity than larger countries, because larger countries find it easier to organise majorities under the double majority requirements of [standard] qualitative majority voting – that is 55 per cent of Member States representing at least 65 per cent of the total EU population need to agree. It’s obviously easier if you’re already close to 20 per cent of the EU population [like Germany] than a country with a very small population.

[Hungary’s] refusal to go along with the oil embargo suggests that unanimity invites external interference, because countries outside the EU who oppose a policy only need to sway one single Member State. They only need to find the weakest link in the chain, and in fact, there are many weak links.

IP: What would it take to transition over to qualified majority voting for CFSP decisions? And do you see countries coming together to implement the change?

LS: It’s not that complicated: there is something called the passerelle clause, which is [contained in] Article 31 of the Treaty of the European Union, that would circumvent the process of changing the treaty. It requires essentially a unanimous decision to introduce majority voting outside of treaty change. 

But I can’t see it happening as long as the current governments in Hungary and Poland are in power, because they are opposed to majority voting. What we’re seeing today with Hungary is that they have very different foreign policy interests vis-a-vis Russia than the rest of the EU. So why would Hungary want to subject a decision to majority voting? 

I suppose the interesting aspect about the current situation is that Poland and Hungary are divided. Usually, the two are quite united in their opposition to certain European policies. But on this question, they’re fundamentally opposed. I don’t expect Poland to suddenly support majority voting and common foreign policy just because of Russia, but it has certainly loosened their categorical opposition towards it. 

The remit of CFSP is limited. When we talk about majority voting in EU foreign policy, this sounds revolutionary. But in essence, what we’re talking about is extending majority voting to sanctions. That’s it.”

IP: Do you see the recently concluded Conference on the Future of Europe as an instrument for change on this topic?

LS: I’m not terribly optimistic. I was an expert on one of the Conference’s panels on EU foreign policy, and the question of majority voting and foreign policy also came up there. I think it was quite attractive to many of the participants because it seems an obvious solution to many of the ills of EU foreign policy. 

But if you read the non-paper from 9 May, a group of 13 Member States made a joint statement that the Conference shouldn’t be used by the European Parliament to press federal plans, and that there’s no space for treaty change or institutional change. I also don’t think many people have taken note of the conference outside of Brussels, aside from those citizens who were directly involved. So I’m not sure how much resonance it will have.

IP: What is the one thing that you find politicians, on the one hand, and EU citizens, on the other hand, are misunderstanding about this issue of unanimity?

LS: The first thing is that the remit of CFSP is limited. When we talk about majority voting in EU foreign policy, this sounds revolutionary. But in essence, what we’re talking about is extending majority voting to sanctions. That’s it. That’s the most operative realm in which it would actually make a difference. It would make the EU more effective. It would prevent the blockades that we’re currently seeing. But it’s not a revolution, it’s a step in the right direction, not more than that. 

The second thing is perhaps not misunderstood but underestimated. Majority voting is not a remedy or panacea, because it requires not only making a decision but also implementing it. And as it stands in CFSP, the EU does not have very strong enforcement powers. Imagine that a country gets outvoted and if it’s a country that usually abides by EU rules and decisions and it’s just a marginal interest that is affected, it’ll probably implement a decision out of goodwill, out of its conviction of being a good EU Member State. But if that country is recalcitrant, if it commonly defies the EU or a core interest is involved and it gets outvoted, it would just not implement the decision.